This question has in mind the eternal destination of an individual who never gets a chance to hear about Jesus Christ or the gospel. Hypothetically, you might think of a person completely alone on an island. In reality, you might think of persons in an indigenous tribe where the message of the gospel has not yet arrived. The question assumes that God may treat such an individual differently because they never had a chance to believe in the gospel because they never heard it. How could God hold a person accountable for what he doesn’t know? Wouldn’t it be unfair for God to send such a person to hell?
Well, there are several logical and theological problems with the assumption that any person would be treated differently than any other sinner. The question itself is flawed from its false assumption. But remarkably, even though this question is flawed, the Bible gives a very clear answer. The Bible’s answer is this: all sinners everywhere are justly condemned by God for willfully rejecting His rule and His laws. A sinner is not exempt from condemnation just because he doesn’t hear the gospel, and a sinner does not become liable to judgment once he does hear the gospel. For the individual who never hears the gospel, he is liable to the judgment just like a person who does hear the gospel. We can arrive at such an answer because of several things that the Scripture clearly teaches.
First, the Bible clearly teaches that God has revealed Himself generally through the beauty and order of creation. That is, every person on the planet has some level of knowledge about God – even the person who’s never heard of Jesus. The apostle Paul states this in Romans 1:18-20, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (emphasis mine). Paul states in that passage that God has given general revelation to all of mankind. That is, God can be generally known through creation. That being said, knowledge of God from creation is limited. You cannot know things about God from creation like the fact that He is Triune, loving, or omnipresent. But God’s existence, His power, and some perception of His divine nature can be known through creation alone. Paul says that God has revealed Himself through the creation of the world and because of this, all men are “without excuse.” Because of the evidence of God in creation, mankind should know that God exists – he has no excuse and he cannot claim that God didn’t give him sufficient evidence for His existence. Paul also states that sinners have suppressed this knowledge. Because mankind is unrighteous, he suppresses the truth that God exists. So then, because God has made Himself known in creation, all of mankind have knowledge that God exists, whether they be in North America or some undiscovered tribe. The problem is not that they have no knowledge of God at all, the problem is that they have suppressed the knowledge of God that they already have.
Second, the Bible teaches that all of mankind have a sense of what God requires. All mankind have some sense of morality, an understanding of right and wrong. Even the person who never hears of Jesus or the gospel understands right and wrong. He will therefore be held accountable to God for doing what is wrong and failing to do what is right, since he knows what he should and shouldn’t do. Now, as with general revelation, this does not mean that mankind has an exhaustive knowledge of right and wrong, but that he has a general one. Again we turn to Romans to find this truth revealed where Paul says, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16). Paul is dealing with the nature of man in this passage. Even though a man may not have “the law,” that is, the law of Moses, they are a “law to themselves.” Paul says that all man has knowledge of moral law written on his heart, and it is enough moral knowledge for him to have conflict in his conscience. So again, man has general knowledge of God and general knowledge of morality – the person who never hears of Jesus is therefore not innocent or exempt from being accountable to God. Although he doesn’t know the Bible or all the specifics, he doesn’t seek the God he knows exists and he doesn’t obey the moral law written on his heart. People are responsible to God for what God has already revealed to them.
Third, the Bible clearly teaches that you must hear the gospel in order to believe it and thereby be saved. A person who never hears of Jesus cannot believe in Him. How can you believe in something you’ve never heard of? Scripture teaches that a prerequisite for salvation is hearing the message of the gospel. In Ephesians 1:13, Paul describes something of the process of conversion, and notice what he says comes before belief: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). Hearing the “word of truth,” the gospel, comes before belief. Furthermore, Paul states this truth even clearer in Romans 10, where he explains how a person arrives at believing in Christ for salvation. Notice the progression and simple logic in the passage: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (vv. 14-17, emphasis mine). Paul states that belief in Christ is necessary for calling on Him, and hearing about Christ is necessary for believing in Him. He even summarizes that truth in the last verse of the passage, saying that faith (for believing unto salvation) comes from hearing the word of Christ, the gospel.
The question assumes the possibility that a person is not liable to judgment until he hears the gospel. But hearing the gospel doesn’t make you liable to judgment, being a sinner makes you liable to the judgment. Hearing the gospel is only the prerequisite for coming to Christ in repentance and faith. If hearing the gospel was what made a person liable to judgment, then you should avoid evangelism at all costs! Why would you take the gospel to the nations if they were innocent before hearing the gospel and condemned after hearing it? The apostle Peter says something to this effect: “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:21). If people who never hear the gospel are already saved, then we should make sure no one ever hears the gospel. The worst thing we could do would be to share the gospel with a person and have him or her reject it. If that were to happen, he or she would be condemned. Why run the risk of people possibly rejecting the gospel and condemning themselves when they were previously saved because they had never heard the gospel?
Fourth, the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is only by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Just because a person never hears of Jesus doesn’t mean he can take a different way of salvation. If he doesn’t receive salvation by grace through faith, “the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36) and he goes to hell. If this were not the case, then you would have to explain how salvation comes to a person differently than what is clearly prescribed in the Bible – and there is no other way. And what would it say about the justice of God and the work of Christ if a person could be saved apart from faith in Christ? The Bible is clear that a person must come to Father through Jesus (John 14:6), and that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Fifth and finally, we are not in a position to judge whether or not God’s actions are fair or just. We are not ultimately in a position to judge God’s actions as fair or unfair. Some think it is unfair for Him to express judgment on sinners who have never heard of Jesus. What’s more, some people would consider it unfair that they were “force-fed” Christianity their whole lives. If you consider it unfair for God to condemn those who have never heard, your opinion doesn’t matter. God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), He does what He pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6), and He always does what is good and glorifying to Himself.
So what does the Bible say about the eternal destination of a person who never hears of Jesus? Without saving faith in Jesus Christ, he will go to hell. Just because he didn’t have a chance to hear the gospel doesn’t mean he was innocent. He has knowledge about God and some sense of what God requires, and because he doesn’t seek God or do what God requires, he is condemned like the rest of mankind. If he doesn’t hear the gospel, he cannot believe it, and the only way to be saved is through hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ. And instead of judging the fairness of such, we should be more fervent to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15) so that they can come to Jesus Christ.
What Does the Bible Say? is a question and answer series which seeks biblical answers to pressing questions.
Brandon is the founder and main contributor to Brandon’s Desk, the blog with free Christian resources from his ministry. He is proud to be the pastor of the family of believers at Locust Grove Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky. He and his wife Dakota live there with their dog, Susie.